Let's consider the story of Lucy, an elderly woman living in Hughenden, western Queensland. She moved into the old people's units and the over-worked local Telecom technicians were two months behind in their work and hadn't got around to reconnecting her phone. Lucy, an extremely active septuagenarian, slipped and broke her hip. She dragged herself to the telephone but it was still not connected. Lucy bled to death and was found three days later.
Then there's another woman in remote Australia who was bitten by a taipan snake. She was at the station homestead by herself - the telephone was out of order at the time - and unable to call for assistance, she died.
I could go on to tell the story of the grazier outside of Normanton whose homestead was suddenly engulfed by rising floodwaters. Non-replacement and holidays had left just two technicians to service the entire Queensland gulf country - an area the size of Victoria - and despite repeated requests the telephone remained out of order.
But I really don't have to tell anyone these stories, they know the story of little Sam Boulding in Victoria whose parents were unable to call emergency services to help their asthmatic son and he died. Sam's mother says Telstra advised her that technicians would be around to fix her phone on February 5. On February 6 her son died. The phone had still not been fixed.
The National and Liberal parties claim they will address these problems with universal service obligations, enshrined in legislation and regulations. This may be credible if it wasn't for Sam Boulding and the other infamous Casualties of Telstra (COT) cases. Legislative and regulatory universal service obligations exist now, and these cases send a flashing neon signal that laws cannot and will not be enforced against a huge corporate giant such as Telstra.
If you're out the back of Brewarrina or Bourke and find that your phone is not working yet Telstra says they've checked it and it is, what are you going to do? Sue them? We all know what the legal results are when battlers attempt to take on giant corporations in the court.
In a master stroke of bad timing, National Party leader John Anderson announced the opening of the way for the full sale of Telstra - indicating that the Estens recommendations had now basically been met - on the same day that metropolitan newspapers were covering Sam Boulding's mother's evidence to the court.
Sammy made this horrible screaming noise ..... and said, "I don't want to die". I replied, "I don't want you to die. I don't want you to die either, I promise I won't let you". He was holding my hand and said, "I love you Mummy". And then I knew he was dead. (SMH, June 25, 2003)
These incidents are not the fault of Telstra. It is not possible to have ten technicians in every town; but like the fire brigade or the ambulance, the telephone is an essential service and it cannot of its nature always be cost effective. How can a fire brigade that might get only 100 hours of work a year be called cost effective? There might be five men employed full time to do 100 hours work a year, but that is the nature of an (essential) emergency service.
Who knows when a flood is suddenly going to occur, who knows when a taipan is suddenly going to strike, who knows when an old lady is going to fall and break her hip. But one thing we absolutely do know is that under a privatised system one way or another ultimately there will be no technicians based outside of the big cities.
Seven years ago all six major mining companies operating in Australia were Australian owned. During the month of the Telstra sale legislation, when the sixth and last of our major mining companies became foreign owned - leaving 80 per cent of our mineral resources in the hands of foreigners - I could not help but think of John McEwen and his mantra of "buying back the farm". In the sharpest of contrasts the current National Party leadership seems determined, if not actively to sell them off, then most certainly to roll over and to allow what's left of Australia's mineral assets to be flogged off to the highest bidder.
Under a future trade agreement, such as is currently being negotiated with the US, it seems clear that the rights of government to prevent purchase by foreign corporations will be removed. With Mark Latham on the rise in the Labor Party and the Liberal's Peter Costello waiting in the wings, both self-proclaimed free trade advocates - some would say zealots - there will be little hope of a privatised Telstra staying in Australian hands. If world markets were a game of football, Mr Latham and Mr Costello would undoubtedly prefer to play without a referee.
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